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ClassicsOnline Home » RHEINBERGER, J.G.: Organ Works, Vol. 7 (Rubsam)
Successful during his lifetime as a composer in a variety of genres, Rheinberger is remembered today largely for his twenty organ sonatas and other shorter compositions for the instrument. The sonatas, composed in a bold and virtuosic style, rank among the major works composed for the ‘king of instruments’ during the nineteenth century. The Twelve Monologues, six of which are heard on this disc, range across a variety of keys and emotional moods, culminating in an elaborate setting of a chorale best known from its use in the St Matthew Passion of J.S. Bach, whose influence may also be heard in Rheinberger’s D minor Prelude and Fugue.
By David Denton
We have reached the seventh volume of Joseph Rheinberger’s complete works for organ, the only part of his vast output that remains in the repertoire. A child prodigy of such immense talent that at the age of four he had become his local church organist, he started composing before studying at the Munich Conservatoire when he was just thirteen, but later destroyed everything he had composed before the age of twenty. The Seventeenth and Eighteenth Sonatas, written in 1894 and 1897, were conceived in symphonic proportions typical of the romantic era, the weight of texture in the Seventeenth’s finale a most exhilarating experience. The Eighteenth contains a mercurial second movement calling for a brilliant show of virtuoso dexterity. I don’t know why Naxos has split the twelve Monologues into two groups of six played on separate discs, maybe they were thought of insufficient consequence to play as a whole. It is a view with which I fully concur, but the disc does give us the D minor Prelude and Fugue that continues where the sonatas leave off. The whole series is performed by the distinguished German-born organist, Wolfgang Rubsam, his playing having that stamp of authority in each work. The weight of his concept is much helped by the superb Rieger-Sauer instrument at Fulda Cathedral in Germany. It is a wonderful beast of an organ that must take some handling, though Rubsam certainly draws the very best from it. The venue records well, the mix of weight and clarity making for a thrilling disc.
Joseph Gabriel Rheinberger (1839–1901)
Organ Works, Volume 7
While for many his name may now have little resonance, Joseph Gabriel Rheinberger remains familiar enough to organists, to whose repertoire he made such an extensive contribution, in particular his twenty sonatas for the instrument. Among his contemporaries he was held in considerable esteem as a teacher, preserving classical standards in a changing world, and some of his Catholic liturgical music may still occasionally be heard.
Rheinberger was born in Vaduz, the capital of the principality of Liechtenstein, in 1839, the son of the Treasurer to the Prince. He had his first organ lessons at the age of five and two years later was able to serve as organist at Vaduz, making his first attempts at composition. From 1848 he was able to have more formal instruction in the nearby town of Feldkirch from the choirmaster Philipp Schmutzer, who had been trained in Prague, and gain some familiarity with the music of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven. It was on the advice of the composer Matthäus Nagiller that his father was persuaded to allow him in 1851 to study at the Munich Conservatory. His teachers there included, for theory of music, Julius Joseph Maier, a pupil of Moritz Hauptmann, himself a pupil of Spohr and founder of the Bach Gesellschaft. His organ teacher was the virtuoso Johann Georg Herzog, who had joined the staff of the Conservatory in 1850, and he studied the piano with Julius Emil Leonhard. He was also to take private lessons from Franz Lachner, who, as a young man, had been a member of Schubert’s circle in Vienna. During his three years of formal study he already showed very considerable ability both as an organist and as a master of counterpoint and fugue. In the 1850s he continued to write a varied series of compositions, including three operas and three symphonies, but these were withheld from publication. His first published composition was a set of piano pieces, issued in 1859, the year in which he was appointed to the staff of the Munich Conservatory as a piano teacher and subsequently as a teacher of theory. In the following years he was appointed organist at the Church of St Michael, conducted the Oratorio Society, served briefly as repetiteur at the Court Opera, and from 1867 held the position of professor of organ and composition at the Conservatory, retaining this until his death in 1901. Among other distinctions he was in 1877 offered the position of director of the new Hoch Conservatory in Frankfurt, which he refused, but was appointed Court Kapellmeister, directing the music at the Court Church of All Saints in Munich. Various public and academic honours were bestowed on him, in Munich and abroad, with a papal knighthood after his dedication of his Cantus Missae to Pope Leo XIII. He enjoyed the highest reputation as a teacher, with pupils including Humperdinck, Wolf-Ferrari and Furtwängler, inculcating in them a respect for sound classical principles. His marriage in 1867 to a widowed former pupil, the writer Franziska von Hoffnaass, led to the setting of many of her verses, part of a wide range of works of all kinds. His organ compositions, while keeping some place in current performance repertoire, have for long also proved a valuable element in the training of new generations of players.
Rheinberger’s Sonata No. 17 in B major, Op. 181, written in 1894, a Fantasie-Sonate, starts with a Fantasie movement, marked Moderato grave. Its stately opening leads to a more lyrical element, with descending fifths, and then to a passage of more rapid figuration. A section marked Poco animato and in 6/8 seems about to launch into a fully fugal texture in B minor. The climax of this ushers in a return of the first material and a solemn conclusion. The second movement, Intermezzo, marked Molto andante, in 3/8 and in the key of E flat major, presents the main theme in various guises, impressively entrusted to the pedals at its second full appearance. Triplet figuration leads to accompanying demisemiquavers before the Adagio coda, marked pianissimo. The Introduction to the last movement moves from E flat to the original key of B major, before the fugal subject is heard in the alto, answered in the soprano, followed by the bass in the pedals and then the tenor in the left hand, the material worked out, with other thematic material, before the final Maestoso.
Rheinberger’s Prelude and Fugue in D minor, JWV 10, is couched in the familiar idiom of German organ music, an early example of his technical expertise. Written in 1854 during his student years, with an identifying number taken from his own thematic index for works composed between 1853 and 1859, it is dedicated, with two other organ pieces in the same forms, to his teacher at Munich Conservatory, Johann Georg Herzog. The D minor Prelude is followed by a D major Fugue with two subjects, the first subject introduced in the tenor, followed by successive entries in the alto, soprano and, on the pedals, the bass. The second subject, a short quaver motif, is later stated, to be combined with the first.
The Twelve Monologues, Op. 162, date from 1890. The first of the set, in C major and marked Con moto is characteristic in its harmonies and textures. It is followed by a Poco agitato in A minor with the melodic interest in the upper part. The third, marked Andante tranquillo, is in E major and is a study in syncopation. The Monologues are divided into four books and the second album starts with an Andantino in E flat minor, designed for two manuals, with the upper part melody accompanied by a left-hand quaver pattern. The fifth piece, in G major and marked Andante amabile, is in a gently lilting 6/8. This is followed by a sixth piece, Largo espressivo in 12/16 and in the key of B minor. The more elaborate figuration for the manuals provides an accompaniment to the chorale on the pedals, a melody generally known as O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden, familiar from its use in Bach’s St Matthew Passion.
Dated 1897, Rheinberger’s Sonata No. 18 in A major starts with a Phantasie, its first section, opening with the descending notes of the tonic arpeggio, leading to a contrasting section in D flat major, the harmonic equivalent of the mediant (C sharp). The opening figure returns, at first in C sharp minor, leading to the return of the first section, followed by a duly transposed version of the secondary material. The second movement Capriccio, marked Agitato, is in A minor, almost suggesting Mendelssohn in its transparent texture. The first and second sections of the movement are repeated before a coda derived from what has gone before. The Idylle that follows, marked Andante pastorale, is in F major and in 3/8 metre, gentle music that is succeeded by the more imposing A major Finale, capped by a return to the material of the first movement.
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RHEINBERGER, J.G.: Organ Works, Vol. 7 (Rubsam)